Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control
by Fred W. Friendly
Random House, 325 pp., $6.95
On February 28, 1967 the President addressed the 90th Congress on matters of Health and Education, two subjects close to the Great Socialite’s heart. Sandwiched between a plea for the expansion of the Teachers’ Corps and a request for additional funds for biomedical research was the statement, “I am convinced that a vital and self-sufficient non-commercial television system will not only instruct, but inspire and uplift our people.” The fact that the President is an owner not only of KTBC, Austin’s one commercial television station, but of Capital Cable, a program-carrier, made all the more resonant his plea for non-commercial television.
He recommended that the Congress make law the Public Television Act of 1967, calling for (1) an increase in Federal funds for television and radio construction to $10.5 million in fiscal 1968. (2) “The creation of a corporation for public television authorized to provide support to non-commercial television and radio.” (3) “Provide $9 million in fiscal 1968 as initial funding for the company.” Further, “non-commercial television and radio in America, even though supported by Federal funds, must be absolutely free from any Federal Government interference over programming.” Also, “the strength of public television should lie in its diversity. Every region and every community should be challenged to contribute its best.” Finally, “one of the corporation’s first tasks should be to study the practicality and the economic advantages of using communication satellites to establish an educational television and radio network.” With these words, the President set in motion what might yet become the most useful action of a most bloody reign, and though he dealt somewhat gingerly with the key issues (freedom from federal interference, regional diversity, satellite versus land-line interconnection), he gave the Congress (known to those it fascinates as the Nitwit Ninetieth), a chance to do something unusual and in the public interest.
On April 11, 1967 Senator John O. Pastore, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communication, began hearings on Senate Bill 1160 which would make palpable the President’s dream to inspire and uplift. The hearings were well-conducted. A wide variety of interests, some candid, some not, were heard. The Senators who asked the questions (and sometimes answered them) were unusually dedicated and, all in all, the Upper House could be observed at its judicious best, particularly when the Bill finally came to a vote on May 17 and was passed. The Bill then went to the Lower House, the chamber most susceptible to special interests. On September 22, after a stormy time in committee (at one point the entire Republican membership voted against setting up any public television corporation), the House of Representatives passed the Bill, suitably weakened. Since then, the two Houses have worked out a joint Bill which the President signed on November 7.
MEANWHILE, the first nationwide attempt at conventionally interconnected non-commercial television was made November 5 by the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a creation of the Ford Foundation. Beneficiary of a grant of $10 million and some autonomy, the PBL put on the first of what will be forty-five news programs this year. Executive Director for news is Av Westin, formerly of CBS. He is aided (or hindered) by an editorial board composed of a number of Establishment worthies headed by an academic from (where else?) Columbia. Behind the entire operation looms the somber Foundation, whose chief mover for television is the turbulent Fred W. Friendly, until recently president of CBS News. Though not much in public view these days, Mr.Friendly is as responsible as anyone for what has now come to pass.
The theme of the first program was the matter of race in the United States and how it affected the mayoral elections in Boston, Cleveland, and Gary. Of the 125 stations that were supposed to receive the program, 35 chose not to show it. Cleveland thought they should wait until after the election, while Tallahassee, Florida, and all of South Carolina decided to wait until hell froze over. Boston ran the program at the last minute but offered free time for those who felt they had been unfairly treated. All in all, the nervousness the first program caused is a tribute to the adventurousness of Mr.Westin and his staff. At least half of the first program was excellent television. The other half, Day of Absence (a fantasy about the disappearance of all the Negroes in a southern town) simply proved that to write plays it is not enough to be beautiful and black. Interestingly enough, the editorial board had objected to the play on aesthetic grounds, but the newsmen pushed it through as relevant comment and nearly wrecked the evening. It is never a good idea to mix fiction and reality. PBL would be better advised to prepare dialogues on various issues, to be written for the occasion and spoken by actors. From Plato to Camus the form has been effective on the page; on camera it could be marvelous. Nevertheless, the program’s good things outweighed the bad. The showing of a meeting between white waffling liberals and booming black rhetoricians was chilling. Coverage of the candidates in the three cities was also excellent. Yet watching Louise Day Hicks snub a black Boston voter, one could not help but think that, though it was a good thing to show up the lady racist in all her soft simplicity and sweet malice, the same technique could be used quite as effectively to show a noble candidate at a bad moment in order to give the impression that he was a rogue. After all, Time Magazine makes its fortune that way. The same approach in the iciest of mediums could be fatal to the good. Television with a point of view is all very well…but whose? Everything depends, finally, on the men who will make up the corporation.
At the moment the PBL is on the spot. If the news reporting is sharp and to the point, the politicians will be alarmed since they are the inevitable victims of close scrutiny; if alarmed, they are certain not to support the new network. On the other hand, should the programs be bland and tactful then there will be no need for the government to subsidize that which neither inspires nor uplifts. To be unable to win no matter what one does is a familiar television dilemma. In the “Golden” Age of television drama, the advertisers believed that the ideal play for television must not be too boring or the viewer would switch to another channel, nor too interesting or the viewer would resent the commercial break. Happily for all concerned, this truly golden mean was achieved more often than not.
TO UNDERSTAND the forces currently at work to discredit the idea of public television, one must consider the state of commercial television in the United States today. As a document, Friendly’s recent memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, is instructive, though one often has the sense that he does not begin to say half of what he knows. Nevertheless, the story he does tell is interesting, and sad. Although commercial television has never been devoted to the public interest, the private interests which control it often used to allow good things to be done. They could afford to. In the 1950s an advertising minute of prime time (evening) cost $1,000. Today that minute can cost as much as $60,000. It was possible in the 1950s to do seven new plays a week. It was also possible to do reasonably “controversial” news reports and show them at times when “opinion makers” were watching. But human beings tend to take the good as much for granted as the bad. Gradually, without public protest, costs rose (also profits) and quality declined; by the 1960s commercial television had lost the intelligent viewer, and gained the world. It also lost, this year, Fred W. Friendly.
From 1937 to 1941 Friendly was a radio producer-reporter in Providence. During the war he worked on an army newspaper in the China-Burma-India Theater. In 1947 he met Edward R. Murrow, and together they produced the record “I Can Hear It Now.” Out of this association came a partnership. The two men complemented each other. Murrow was a respectable journalist made famous by his radio reports from wartime London. Friendly was an eager technician who made up in energy and, at times, boldness what he lacked in style and wisdom. Murrow thought and gravely spoke in measured popular cadence while Friendly promoted and probed and organized. Their first broadcasting venture together was the CBS radio news program “Hear It Now,” which promptly became television’s “See It Now,” sponsored each week by the Aluminum Company of America. In the seven years that Murrow and Friendly produced “See It Now,” a time span equivalent in television to the Wars of the Roses, they were able to strike an occasional blow for sanity in a country which was behaving with more than its usual irrationality. Senator McCarthy and television came into prominence together, and it is a nice irony that a medium so perfectly made to order for a demagogue should have proved to be the means of his undoing, thanks as much to Murrow and Friendly as to the Senator’s own extraordinary capers.
“See It Now” ‘s first foray into the shadow area of paranoid-politics is worth recalling, if only as a reminder that nothing like it will ever again be done on commercial television. In 1953 an Air Force Lieutenant named Milo Radulovich was asked to resign his commission because his sister and father had been secretly denounced for holding “radical” political beliefs. This sort of thing was common in the McCarthy era, and though it still goes on, means of redress are somewhat easier. After considerable investigation, Murrow and Friendly decided that the charges against the two relatives were probably groundless and, in any case, there existed no valid reason for the Lieutenant’s dismissal. They reported the matter to the public. The result was an eloquent television program, much applauded by the press (with the usual right-wing exceptions). Best of all, after some backing and filling, the Air Force restored Radulovich to active duty, and all was well in the land…except that Murrow and Friendly had broken CBS’s first rule of news reporting: “Ideally, in the case of controversial issues, the audience should be left with no impression as to which side the analyst himself actually favors.” The magnates of CBS were plainly not happy. As Friendly puts it in his flat way: “I never heard a word from any company executives [sic] about the Radulovich broadcast other than about the mail count, which continued to run in Murrow’s favor.” In Friendly’s book those company executives are like gods, irrational and superb, as apt to cast a thunderbolt as to reach out a healing hand.